Kilgore on September 28th, 2010

Over at Greyhawk Grognard they’re discussing how much influence Tolkien had on D&D, specifically the Advanced D&D game. Mentioned, of course, is the editorial written by Gygax in Dragon Magazine pretty much dismissing the influence altogether.

I’m not sure, but I think that that editorial was the first thing I ever read in Dragon Magazine. I was pretty new to the game at the time, with only a borrowed Players Handbook, and I recall more or less taking Gygax’s claim at face value. It wasn’t too long, though, before I acquired the DMG and the Monster Manual. And the more I learned, and the more I re-read Lord of the Rings, the more I decided that Gygax’s claim was basically full of gorgon excrement.

Over the years, as I’ve learned more about the history of the game, about the writing of LOTR, about Sword & Sorcery literature, and about the things that influenced all of them, I’ve come to believe that many of the things that inspired Tolkien inspired the S&S writers that inspired Gygax and company. Greedy dwarves and gold-hoarding dragons aren’t Tolkien creations, after all. And when it came time to create a list of monsters, magic, and character types, Tolkien’s books were used as sources even if they weren’t necessarily direct influences on the fundamentals of the game.

So, though it’s tough to claim that Tolkien had no direct influence on the inclusion of hobbits, ents, and balrogs in the early games, for instance, I also put no stock in the idea that D&D was some sort of Tolkien RPG. It’s unfortunate that so many seem to insist it’s either all or nothing on this. I think Tolkien’s direct influence is visible but not overly significant (not like Vancian magic, for example) and I think that a lot of what some see as Tolkien’s direct influence is really more of an indirect effect of others being influenced by the same sources as Tolkien.

Is it because of the relative popularity of Tolkien compared to other influences? Do some gamers think being influenced by Tolkien is akin to claiming a serious rock band was influenced by teen pop singers or that a serious film was inspired by a sitcom? Is it somehow demeaning to be influenced by something popular with the mainstream? Is it a badge of honor to be able to claim obscure sources for your inspiration?

Just thinking out loud.

Personally, I think that the influence Tolkien’s works had on D&D were much more significant than Gygax let on, though I also think that much of that influence was not intentional on the part of the early creators of the game.

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